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How to break into the charity sector

Hands Holding CharityThere are approximately 180,000 charities in the UK today, employing around 778,000 paid workers. While some are major organisations with big budgets, more than 80% are small concerns with an annual income of less than £100,000. Whether you’re hoping to land a graduate role in an international organisation or find work in a local charity, competition for paid employment in the sector is fierce.

‘The charity sector needs specific skills, knowledge and expertise, yet the sector also needs people who have realistic expectations of what it takes to work and succeed in its not-for-profit organisations,’ says career coach Ruth Winden of Careers Enhanced.

‘Charities are about making a difference, and attract individuals with the same motivation and sets of values. But there is a lot more to charities. Many people are unaware how commercially driven charities have to be these days to survive, how long working hours can be, and how much hard work it is – often (but not always) for less pay and fewer perks than in other sectors.’

The good news is that the not-for-profit sector offers many ways to engage and lend a helping hand.

‘From ambassador, trustee, to campaigner or weekend shop assistant, there are countless roles, at all levels, to gain first-hand experience of what it’s like to work in the third sector,’ adds Ruth.

What role is right for you?

The third sector is vast, so you will need to narrow down what kind of charity you want to contribute to. Are you attracted to a hands-on role such as social care, or in a support or management role, such as fundraising or campaigning? Like the private sector, not-for-profit organisations also have positions in marketing, finance, legal, IT, and HR.

Small organisations are more likely to require people who can perform a number of roles. In contrast, larger charities prefer professionals with specific skills and experience. Transferable skills, such as strategic thinking, project management, fundraising and public relations, are relevant across the sector.

Working conditions and pay vary between roles, but generally the third sector offers a relatively low salary compared to the private sector. Not-for-profit organisations tend to have a forward-thinking approach to work-life balance, and may offer more flexible working conditions than the private sector. There may be opportunities for travel, especially in international development.

Before you start your job search, Ruth suggests asking yourself the following questions.

  • What cause(s) do you want to support?
  • Which geographical reach you want – do you prefer to work for a small local charity, a national or international one?
  • What size of organisation works best for you – a small charity, a medium-sized one or one of the big players?
  • What professional experience, knowledge and skills do you bring that you can transfer?
  • What makes you attractive to the charity sector?
  • In what type of role and at which level do you want to work?
  • Which organisation makes it onto your target list of your top 20 charities that would be a good fit for you?
  • How can you find out as much as possible about them?
  • Consult their websites and career pages, follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and find out to whom you are connected and who you could approach to find out more.
  • Get a feel for the charities by talking to their representatives at fund-raising activities.
  • Study relevant job postings and analyse how you fulfil the essential and desirable selection criteria, and whether you need to fill any gaps.

Experience is a must

Gaining experience, as a volunteer, or by doing temp or contract work, and becoming a trustee will make you much more attractive to prospective employers.

‘Going out there to volunteer, gain work experience, test the water and make connections is an excellent way to break into the charity sector,’ says Ruth.

‘If you don’t like the thought of all the in-depth research upfront, volunteer first and then start the career transition process once you have gained experience.’

Training opportunities

Many larger charities provide graduate training programmes, work placements and internships. Competition to enter graduate schemes is high and you may need a 2:1 degree and a certain number of UCAS points. Some of the biggest employers in the charity and voluntary sector include:

  • Age UK
  • Alzheimer’s Society
  • Amnesty International
  • Barnardo’s
  • British Red Cross
  • Cancer Research UK
  • English Heritage
  • Macmillan Cancer Support
  • Médecins Sans Frontières
  • Mind
  • National Trust
  • Oxfam
  • Save the Children
  • The British Red Cross
  • WaterAid
  • Wellcome Trust

Whether you’re applying for a training programme or paid employment, it’s important to be clear about why you want to work in the not-for-profit sector.

‘Charities want to hire people who genuinely believe in their mission, as they make the most motivated and engaged employees,’ says Ruth.

‘Demonstrate an understanding of the sector and a commitment to the charity you’re applying to, by doing voluntary work for example, and you’re more likely to stand out from the crowd.’

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